Will U.S. Soccer Ever Produce a Pele?

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The men's national team has a new coach, Juergen Klinsmann. Will he be able to inject some magic into the way Americans play the sport?

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U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati poses with Juergen Klinsmann after he was named head coach of the men's national soccer team. (Credit: Reuters)


Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), talk about the U.S. men's soccer team's new coach, Juergen Klinsmann.


Hey, guys

Following a series of uninspiring matches capped by a come-from-ahead loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final, the United States' men's national soccer team clearly needed a coaching change. Buh-bye, Bob Bradley. Hello, Juergen Klinsmann. Question is, will the charismatic German—a longtime object of hardcore American soccer fan ardor—cure the numbing, nice-try middlingness that long has defined Team USA's play?

I'm skeptical.

Granted, Klinsmann's credentials are impressive. He won a World Cup as a player for Germany; in 2006, he coached his home nation to a third place finish in the tournament. And don't expect a culture clash: Klinsmann lives in California, speaks fluent English, and has an American wife and two soccer-playing children whom he says consider themselves more Fourth of July than Oktoberfest.

Better still, Klinsmann's diagnosis of what ails U.S. soccer strikes me as both accurate and insightful. He isn't focused on playing a particular formation; on finding and imposing a distinct national style; on blaming the second-class world citizen status of MLS and college soccer; on the imbecilic, casual fan fever-dream belief that America would totally kick butt on the pitch if only our best athletes didn't play in the NBA and NFL instead.

No, Klinsmann understands that the problem with American soccer is simple. We don't play enough pickup . From orange slice leagues on, our talent development is programmatic and over-coached. The U.S. national team is plenty athletic—physical fitness and toughness are our calling cards—but woefully devoid of magic. Of vision and creativity. Of the things that can't be taught. Our nation produces great, gritty goalkeepers. We never have produced a Pele.

Klinsmann says this needs to change. He says he wants to be involved with youth soccer. Sounds good. Only here's the thing: American players remain top-down creations. In sports—as in life—genius is serendipitous, unexpectedly bubbling from the bottom up.

Emma, am I off-base here? Are the U.S. men about to catch up to their female counterparts?

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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